Montaigne on Friendship

Like every other Type A Millennial, I read Meditations in my early 20s and was blown away. I still have my old dog eared copy; its orange Penguin cover peeling away from edges where old post-it notes peep out. I flipped open to a random page this morning and read from an old post it note: “the starting point for life is an acknowledgement and understanding of its nature.” Quite.

I recently started reading Montaigne’s Essays, which deliver wisdom in the same digestible staccato style. A few snippets from his essay On Friendship I found moving:

There seems nothing for which Nature has better prepared us than for fellowship

Our willing freedom produces nothing more properly its own than affection and loving-friendship

The love of friends is a general universal warmth, temperate moreover and smooth, a warmth which is constant and at rest, all gentleness and evenness, having nothing sharp nor keen.

Montaigne is quick to differentiate true friendship from the transitory or circumstantial relationships many of us would label friendships

In the friendship which I am talking about, souls are mingled and confounded in so universal a blending that they efface the seam which joins them together so that it cannot be found. If you press me to say why I loved him, I feel that it cannot be expressed except by replying: ‘Because it was him: because it was me.’

A similar notion came up in conversation with a Russian friend, who was shocked at how breezily myself and another American applied the label of friend. See also this discussion about friendship from an interview between Tyler Cowen and Masha Gessen.

Montaigne thought sexual love and friendship did not mix because the former thrived in scarcity while the latter is enjoyed in proportion to our desire. He dismissed marriage as a space where these two loves could come together, in part because he believed most women lacked the temperament for profound friendship (a reminder that brilliance often offers no defense against prejudice). In an almost wistful passage, he describes how wonderful such a relationship would be if it were possible:

if it were possible to fashion such a relationship, willing and free, in which not only the souls had this full enjoyment but in which the bodies too shared in the union – where the whole human being was involved – it is certain that the loving-friendship would be more full and more abundant

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